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Feel hopeless about our planet? Here’s how you can help solve a big problem right in your own backyard

It’s easy to feel hopeless about climate change, to believe most solutions are out of your hands. But you can help fix one of the biggest environmental issues of our time, since it’s probably growing right in your own yard: lawn grass.

Most Canadian yards are a sea of non-native, inedible turf grass. Not evolved for our climate, it requires intensive maintenance, watering and fertilizer inputs, and provides virtually no value to native species.

Yet this “eco-desert” is the largest irrigated crop in North America. 

“It’s an ecological disaster, but it’s also a moral disaster,” said Doug Tallamy, an entomologist at the University of Delaware who has long advocated for homeowners to reduce their lawn space. 

Fortunately, he said, this is one of the rare ecological and climate issues driven almost entirely by individual choice, as the majority of lawn grass is maintained on privately owned residential property.

To Elaine Wiersma of Thunder Bay, Ont., that means the responsibility is in the hands of people like her. 

“Changing your lawn, you know, making those decisions to change is something that’s within your own power,” said Wiersma, an associate professor in Lakehead University’s department of health sciences. “While we do need to do and to have collective action, there are things that individuals can do themselves that can make a huge contribution.”

The Great Lakes Climate Change Project is a joint initiative between CBC’s Ontario stations to explore climate change from a provincial lens. You can read some of the recent stories from the project here: 

Over the last decade, Wiersma and her family have been slowly replacing their lawn grass with native species. She said the result has been incredible. 

“It’s this oasis of biodiversity and life within this eco-desert of lawns. It’s just such an incredible privilege to be able to provide this space and to be able to nurture it in the little way that we can.”

That’s not radical. That’s just common sense.– Doug Tallamy, entomologist and lawn naturalization advocate

Tallamy said homeowners often want to support ecosystems, but convention gets in the way. 

“We need to change our mindset about esthetics,” said Wiersma. “We tend to look at natural areas and naturalized yards as being kind of messy. It doesn’t have to be messy. It can be very, very beautiful in its own right.”

Easier than ever to get started

Nina-Marie Lister is a professional planner and director of the Ecological Design Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University, where she’s a professor and graduate director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Lister said naturalizing your lawn can be empowering. 

“Lawn naturalization is easy because it’s right at your doorstep. If you have a lawn, it’s an easy place to start and it shows immediate results. … it’s something very tangible. When you dig in the sod, you turn it over, you plant something else, you see the result. So it’s a very rewarding thing to do.” 

Though lawn naturalization has been recognized as a constitutional right for decades in Canada, cities are still playing catch-up with their bylaws. Lister had to fight a citation over her own naturalized yard.

Woman stands in a meadow of waist-high plants.
Nina-Marie Lister, a professor and graduate director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University, says her natural garden is carefully curated and host to an abundance of species. (Johnny C.Y. Lam)

She said that in her experience, few bylaws that dictate your yard are enforceable, save for rules around cutting your non-native turf grass. Still, she recognizes few people want to go to court over it. 

Fortunately, many Canadian cities are finally catching up.

Lister said that for those interested in bringing their municipality in line with the Constitution, she, along with lawyer David Donnelly and her team of graduate students, have created models for what she calls the Bylaws for Biodiversity. 

Nowadays, Lister said, the biggest hurdle is getting started. Here’s what she and other experts recommend: 

  • Speak to master gardeners or a non-governmental organization (NGO) committed to biodiversity in your community.
  • Choose local native plant garden centres over big-box stores. They carry more species that are actually native to the area and know what grows well — and if they don’t have something, just ask. 
  • Know the area you want to naturalize, including how much light it gets and the type of soil. 
  • Avoid pesticides in order to let native plants grow among the turf grass. 
  • If the turf grass is not too established, try overseeding with native species. 
  • Save and swap seeds. Community seed swaps increase biodiversity for everyone. 

‘Just common sense’

Tallamy’s own push to change the perception of what a yard should look like was labelled “radical” by the Washington Post — a characterization he, and others who enjoy their naturalized yards, roundly reject. 

“All I’m really saying is we need to put more plants in the landscape, more powerful native plants, and to do that we have to have less lawn,” he said. “That’s not radical. That is just common sense.”

Tallamy said that for any landscape to be sustainable, it needs to do four things:

  • Sequester carbon.
  • Manage the watershed.
  • Support native pollinators.
  • Support the plants that make up the base of the food web. 

If a landscape can’t provide these ecosystem services — a term for benefits that a landscape provides to both wildlife and people — it falls on taxpayers to do it instead. And that’s much more expensive. 

House visible through thicket of native plants.
Lister’s natural garden is home to about 100 different species of trees, plants and shrubs. Having such a breadth of native plants on this slope forms a biodiverse landscape that supports wildlife while also preventing erosion and flooding below. (John Lesavage/CBC)

To that end, Tallamy advocates for what he calls a “Homegrown National Park,” an initiative started in the U.S. to get people to naturalize their lawns. He said he got the idea when he heard there were over 40 million acres (1.62 million hectares) of lawn in the U.S. 

“I said, well, gee, what would happen if we cut that area in half? That gives us 20 million acres [8.1 million hectares) that we could put towards conservation right at home … if you add up our major [U.S.] national parks, it’s still less than 20 million acres.”

The impact of naturalizing even a piece of all the lawns in a neighbourhood could be huge, especially by ameliorating the urban heat island effect and providing much-needed stepping-stone habitat to support species at risk, said Jode Roberts at the David Suzuki Foundation. 

The Vancouver-headquartered foundation is currently conducting research to get more Canada-specific statistics on the true extent and impact of our lawns, but they have compiled these numbers in the meantime: 

  • More water and fertilizer is used on lawn grass than corn and wheat combined in Canada and the U.S. 
  • In North America, more emissions are produced by lawn mowers each year than all the cars sold in Canada in 2022. 
  • Lawn care accounts for almost one-third of all residential water use in the U.S.
  • Canadians spend billions of dollars on their grass each year. 
  • The average person spends 150 hours tending to their lawn annually. 

Roberts has a naturalized yard himself, and said he’s happy with the decision.

“I can spend less than 150 hours, and each hour I get to kick up my heels and and have a beer on my patio rather than spending my my scarce time working on my beautiful landscape.”

Lister agrees.

“Naturalized yards are lower maintenance. They’re not no maintenance and they’re often more work initially … [but] I’d say it’s more joyful work.”

Not all or nothing

Most naturalization advocates acknowledge at least one positive about lawn grass, as it’s one of the few plants that can stand up to constantly being trampled — though they say that’s a poor reason to keep a whole yard of it. 

“I actually don’t see any children playing on any front lawns anywhere. But when kids come to my front garden, all the stuff that they see really engages them,” Claudette Sims, former president of the Master Gardeners of Ontario, said from her home in Hamilton. “Kids appreciate, you know, you lift the stones, and you can see the ants, and the pill bugs and all that cool stuff underneath.”

Lots of greenery, plants, trees and flowers in front of a house.
Claudette Sims says she doesn’t miss the lawn she naturalized at her home in Hamilton. She tries to ensure almost all of her plants are native, though she is all for including some favourite introduced — but not invasive — species. (Submitted by Claudette Sims)

In Thunder Bay, Wiersma said, her family feels the same way.

“You [don’t] have to convert your whole lawn to gardens. We didn’t do that until our son grew up and realized he didn’t need all that lawn space anymore,” said Wiersma, whose son is now 17 and grew up with much of the yard naturalized.

“We get such joy out of being in our backyard. We are in a suburban area … it’s amazing to be able to go out in the garden, and to see so many different kinds of insects and different kinds of pollinators, to see … the birds that come by especially during migration season — all kinds of different warblers, and sparrows and you name it.”

Wiersma is currently researching what drives people to naturalize their lawns. She said that for most, it’s a way to both be connected to nature and save it. 

Stepping-stone path through tall, green plants and flowers.
After a decade of slowly naturalizing their yard, Wiersma, along with her husband Harvey and son Gabriel, have removed about two-thirds of their turf grass. She says it’s a ‘labour of love’ in the spring, but she loves it mostly takes care of itself through the summer. (Submitted by Elaine Wiersma)

Everyone CBC spoke with emphasized they aren’t advocating for lawn grass to go away entirely. Having grass in public parks and recreational areas is essential and keeping part of your lawn can make sense if it will be used.

Sims keeps grassy paths through her native garden so she can walk among the plants. 

Tallamy also acknowledged the idea of more insects in the yard may not be appealing to everyone, but he hopes people understand how crucial it is at a time when we are facing a global crisis of insect declines. 

“You lose pollinators, you lose 90 per cent of the flowering plants on the planet. That’s the end of food webs. Then you lose all the vertebrates.”

He added that for a single nest of birds to fledge, they need 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. Plus, more native insects often mean less of the pests people dislike. 

“If you own property, it is your responsibility to be a good steward of that little piece of the Earth,” said Tallamy. “It’s your responsibility because you need a functioning ecosystem. Everybody depends on it.” 

Converting a corner of your lawn might not seem like it could make a difference. The message from those who have done it?

“You’d be surprised.”

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